April 1, 2015

He Who Moves the Mouth Cannot Sing

William Shakespeare
The interesting question now arises:—What would a singer of the old school find if he were to appear to-day? He would ask himself, "Is singing still an art?" and how could he use his masterly effects, so necessary in a past age? He might inquire "What is there to sing in modern vocal works?" Could he make use of his sotenuto his legato, the messa di voce, the fioritura execution and trills? I fear he would find that modern music affords no scope for these effects. Modern music has generally a separate syllable for every note—only forte singing is required, by reason of the presence of elaborate and powerful accompaniments.

A voice that has always to be be produced at high pressure will, in the end, of necessity fail to produce a pure sound. We constantly hear singing out of tune. The artists can scarily avoid fatigue in making the strenuous efforts which are demanded under modern conditions, and one result is that audiences become gradually indifferent to perfect singing in tune, and to steadiness of voice, and are no longer sensitive to delicate effects.

How then is an artist to touch his audience when they have become accustomed to notes that are not commenced in the centre of the sound, and to a forcing of voice and sentiment alike? There is only one possible way of attaining the desired result. He must do what Verdi has asserted to be essential, namely, ritornare all'antico, i,e., return to the old Masters and he must begin afresh to educate his audience to a higher appreciation of the art of singing.

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The old Masters knew nothing of anatomy, yet science only proves how right they were in their ideas of breathing. In accordance with the accepted axiom "Summa ars celare artem" (the highest art lies in its concealment), they insisted that the goal of the singers should be "imperceptible and inaudible breathing." The celebrated master Lamperti was never tired of insisting that the points of the shoulders must be free, and that the breathing of a singer should resemble that of a swimmer.

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Whilst many earnest scientists have endeavored to determine the exact action of the most delicate muscles in the larynx, nothing of so simple a character has yet been discovered as to make the study of singing any easier. 

We shall learn more by observing what happens to the muscles which form the floor of the mouth. 

The least rigidity of the floor of the mouth involves the muscles of the tongue, and the tone as well as the pronunciation is distorted through the awkwardness of the singers. The term "placing the voice" is so commonly used that I do not hesitate to employ it here. 

But when the voice is rightly produced the placing muscles do not interfere with the muscles above them which move the tongue, and so pronunciation and tone are now unimpeded, for they act independently. 

By whispering a sentence and then suddenly singing it we can observe how the placing muscles come into play, and how they are quite different from those we employing in whispering only. 

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The old masters of singing, without any knowledge of anatomy, held it to be of the greatest importance that during the singing of scale passages the jaw was not to move. 

Their maxim was "He who moves the mouth cannot sing." 


—Excerpts from Singing as an Art, a lecture given by William Shakespeare to the Royal Music Association on November 15th, 1904, which can be found using JSTOR. 

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